Prologue I

A lone traveler walks through a dense forest in Japan. Upon a second glance, however, it appears this particular "traveler" has no evidence of traveling; no sack to carry his necessities, no weapons to protect himself from predators or bandits, no boots for the treacherous hike, and not even a hat to guard against the light rain.

The wanderer (that's a better term) wears a simple, black hakama with a gold obi. His black keikogi only covers his right shoulder, and he doesn't seem to be bothered that his left arm and upper left torso is exposed to the elements. A small portion of leather protects the soles of his feet and wraps around his ankles, but leaves his heels and toes uncovered. Indeed, this mysterious man appears to be at home in the thick, wet forest.

But he is not alone.

A canine-like creature, an inukonjou, stalks the man. The wanderer stands about 6'2" with a moderately muscular build, but the great beast is at least three times his size. The creature's red-brown fur stiffens and black-tipped ears twitch as it gazes upon its prey. Using the tall, dense trees as cover, the canine darts ahead of the unfortunate man and skillfully intercepts him. The inukonjou plants its paws into the ground and exposes its sharp, white teeth beneath its pointed snout with a rumbling snarl.

Surprisingly, the man doesn't show any sign of fear. Instead, he looks up at the intimidating creature with a smirk. The animal glares at the man's golden eyes through his long, brown fringe. Most of his hair is tied into a spikey ponytail, but some is left to drape down the back of his neck. The strange man slowly kneels to one knee for the great beast.

"Good evening, Your Grace," the wanderer says. "I am Haruki of the Elemental Warrior's Society. You have called for our assistance, have you not?"

In an instant, the inukonjou dissipates in a green, spiritual aura. The emerald essence swirls gently, transforming into an elegant and noble-looking woman clad in a white gown. She gracefully walks towards Haruki and offers her hand, giving the warrior permission to rise.

"Thank you for responding to my summons, Haruki," the woman says, returning the smirk with one of her own. Although the pair's words are very formal, the warmth in her emerald-colored eyes seems to indicate that they know each other very well.

"I understand that there is an urgent matter I must tend to," Haruki says. "How may I help you, Your Grace?"

"Stop with the formalities," the woman orders with a haughty toss of her short, red-brown hair. "I've known you since you were a pup. Call me 'Kori''."

The elemental warrior is secretly relieved that he can abandon his manners. "Whatever pleases you, Kori."

Kori turns away from Haruki, facing the direction of their next destination. "Follow me. The source of the problem is this way; at the mountains."

Haruki and Kori make the trek eastward towards the base of the mountains. With no trail, the journey would have been nearly impossible for ordinary humans. Fortunately, Kori is not a human and knows her turf very well. Oddly, the warrior doesn't have any trouble keeping up with the canine-like being. While travelling, Kori fills Haruki in on the approaching situation.

"I have received a message from my tengus that the citizens from the sorcerer village have sealed a monster in a cave. I went to investigate myself, and there's definitely something sealed there."

"And you're unable to dispatch it?" Haruki asks.

"The sorcerers are pretty powerful. Even I can't penetrate the magical seal. That's why I called the Society for help."

Haruki raises a single eyebrow. "So how is a half-breed like myself expected to break through a seal that a full-blood like you can't penetrate?"

"Don't be coy," Kori retorts. "I know you already have a plan in mind. You are well-known at the Society for your resourcefulness, after all. Have you made alpha, yet?"

"You're right," the warrior admits with a small chuckle. "I stopped at the village before I came here. I told the elders that if they release the seal at sunset, I will rid them of the monster. They were quite happy to fulfill my request. And no; I haven't made alpha, yet."

"You haven't ceased to amaze me. I'm sure you don't have long. Ah, there it is."

Kori points to a small cave at the mountain base. Weeds, moss and other greenery cover the mountain's face, nearly concealing the small opening. A frown etches Haruki's face. It must be one hell of a monster for the sorcerers to make a trip to such an isolated part of the forest.

The pair approaches the dark, dank structure, carefully navigating over layers of dead leaves and overgrown shrubbery. The rain has gotten heavier, but Haruki is able to peer through the transparent, magical seal. He is surprised to not find a "monster", but what appears to be an adolescent girl. The raven-haired youngster is laying on the bare ground in a fetal position. Her condition is disheartening to say the least. Her hair is matted, and her black kimono is worn, dirty, and tattered.

"She's just a child." Haruki says with a bit of confusion.

"I know," Kori answers matter-of-factly. "At first, I was upset to think that the villagers had the gall to dump their trash in my forest. I was going to pay them a visit, but when I saw the poor girl, I changed my priorities."

"That's a good thing," Haruki says. "Otherwise, I would've been called here for a different reason."

"Hmph!" Kori folds her arms and turns away with a haughty snort.

"Besides," Haruki continues, ignoring Kori's fit. "How would you attack a village if you can't even break their seal?"

The woman gives Haruki a backwards glance. "They would have been devoured before they can put one up." Kori smiles playfully at her own harsh words.

Haruki returns his attention to the abandoned girl, making a visual examination through the seal. "Speaking of eating, she appears to have been here for a while. Did she get any food at all?"

"The seal only prevents those with yōkai from penetrating. My tengus were able to put food in. It startled her at first, so I think she can't see through the seal from the inside."

The heart-broken tone in Kori's voice is evident. Even Haruki, a warrior who has seen many despicable actions, can't hide the sorrow in his golden eyes.

Kori breaks the short silence. "I think I know why they dumped her." She grabs Haruki's forearm and points through the seal. "Look at her right arm. She has the mark of the beast."

The warrior's eyes follow Kori's gesture. Sure enough, the black image of a canine's profile is on the young girl's right wrist. It's an interesting phenomenon that occurs randomly in half-breeds. Perhaps it's a genetic mutation from mixing human blood with inukonjou blood. No one knows for sure. The mark of the beast is very special, but when someone who is unaware of their inukonjou lineage develops the mark, it can pose a problem such as this.

"I get it," Haruki says. "The sorcerers didn't know she was a half-breed until now."

"She's a dark-type, too," Kori says, noting the girl's eerily violet eyes. "They're strong and poisonous. It's a miracle that she didn't have an accidental envenomation with the humans. They would have likely killed her."

As the sun begins to set, the seal becomes noticeably weaker. Once it completely dissipated, the girl inside suddenly becomes aware of the pair of strangers in front of her. She lets out a weak gasp and attempts to sit up, using her arms as support. Her big, innocent eyes widen as Haruki crouches to the frightened child and extends a hand.

"Don't be scared. I will take care of you from now on."